Snow started falling early and hard this season at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, and it doesn’t look like the record amounts are stopping anytime soon.
While ski operators in the eastern Sierra Nevada hope snow accumulation will allow them to stay open through July 4, the storms have added a dangerous edge to life in nearby cities as residents face shoals of impenetrable snow, high winds, road closures, avalanches and floods.
In the worst case, massive snowmelt in the coming weeks could inundate cities along US Highway 395, which meanders along the base of the Sierra snow-capped peaks reaching as high as 14,000 feet. At the same time, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials are concerned that record runoff in Mono and Inyo counties could overwhelm the city’s aqueduct network.
“Getting significant rain on top of snow is a scary proposition,” Inyo County Supervisor Jeff Griffiths said Friday as the first of several anticipated atmospheric rivers swept through the region, prompting avalanche warnings and 120-mph wind gusts. . “We have at least two more storms in the next 10 days, so the big concern is that all the precipitation in the mountains will fall in one fell swoop.”
As of this week, Mammoth Mountain, the massive extinct volcano that catches newly formed storms like a sail, had logged an impressive 672 inches of snow. at the summit and 528 inches at the main lodge of its resort complex, which attracts a million skiers each year.
“This is already one of our snowiest years, and we still have another month to go,” said Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for the resort about 300 miles north of Los Angeles. “We expect to get another 100 inches of snow within 10 days, which could put us above our all-time record of 668 inches — that’s about 55½ feet — at the main lodge.”
With the eastern Sierra Nevada carrying 243% of its normal snowpack for this time of year, the DWP was scrambling to prevent early melting of its century-old water infrastructure in Inyo County’s Owens Valley, about 60 miles south of Mammoth Lakes.
“Only two of the last 100 years have experienced runoff greater than this year’s estimate,” said Anselmo Collins, senior assistant general manager for the water system. “Right now, DWP crews are primarily focused on maintaining capacity within the system by clearing sand traps, canals and other waterways and preparing areas for anticipated water flows.”
Meanwhile, in Mammoth Lakes, a quaint town of 7,500 in Mono County, residents are struggling to adjust to what has become a grisly world of icy precipitation piled up to the roofs.
Street names have been hand painted on snow walls where the signs are no longer visible. Property owners clad in heavy coats and rubber boots endure the deafening roar of snowplows between 20-foot-high benches that test the equipment’s limits. Underfoot, the snow has turned to ice thick enough to skate on.
“This is the harshest winter I’ve been through since I moved here in 1978,” said Howard Scheckter, a real estate broker who is also the region’s weather sage, posting daily forecasts on his website. Mammoth Weather website. “The problem is that the snow continues to accumulate, because this has been an unusually cold winter with very little runoff.”
Nodding grimly to the 15-foot walls of snow on either side of the narrow street he lives on, Scheckter said: “This is a dangerous situation and there will be impacts, including structural damage to homes and businesses buried under deeper and deeper layers of snow”. heavy snow.”
A three-day storm a week ago knocked out power in communities north of Bridgeport, about 50 miles north of Mammoth Lakes, after several large avalanches buried a half-mile stretch of Highway 395 above Mono Lake and north of Lee Vining, a gateway in the warmer months to Yosemite National Park. The park, much of which is covered in record snow, has been closed since February 25.
Separately, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an emergency declaration in Inyo County allowing the DWP and other agencies to take the necessary steps to protect the Los Angeles Aqueduct from destructive flooding rushing from the High Sierra.
As it did in 2017, when record rainfall ended a five-year drought in the region, the DWP plans to reinforce ditches and stream banks with rocks and boulders and demolish new berms to protect the pipeline network and acreage. of gravel beds. built as part of its $2.5 billion dust control project at Owens Lake, which LA drained to quench its thirst.
The DWP is already cascading snowmelt down slopes in areas of the Owens Valley.
“We started preparing our propagation grounds in December,” Collins said, “based on lessons learned from the extremely high runoff experienced in 2017.”
On Friday, rain battered the Long and Owens Valleys, pouring floodwater into normally dry ditches and streams and spewing mud and debris across key transportation routes, including Highway 395, parts of which were temporarily closed throughout the day.
Avalanche and evacuation warnings have been issued for the unincorporated mountain community of Aspendell and the Fort Independence Indian community of Paiute Indians, which operates a casino and shopping complex north of Independence.
“The important message we are trying to send to the public today is a tough one: Travel this weekend is strongly discouraged,” said Carma Roper, a spokeswoman for the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department. “There is a high probability that you will not reach your destination due to road closures due to heavy snowfall and/or flooding. Don’t plan on using this weekend to take your family on vacation or recreate outside.”
Amid even more severe flood warnings when the weather starts to warm, Inyo County officials, emergency services and leaders of the region’s seven Paiute tribes have been making evacuation plans.
“In the event of a disaster, our people would be moved 15 miles north to the Bishop Paiute reservation near Bishop,” said L’eaux Stewart, chairwoman of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, whose 400 members reside on a floodplain. .
“Right now, all of our creeks and creeks are raging,” he added. “So a primary concern is gathering sandbags to hold water and clean up old canals and diversions.”
The eastern Sierra region has a history of destructive flooding.
In 1982, Main Street in Mammoth Lakes was submerged under 2 feet of water. Businesses closed and the roofs of five mobile homes collapsed under the weight of rain and snow.
In 1989, downpours driven by 60-mph winds dug up the soil that fortified a 1,000-foot section of an aqueduct near the community of Cartago and closed a 63-mile stretch of Highway 395. Heavy rains also buried two miles of a trench under an estimated 100,000 cubic yards of debris.
In 2008, a massive debris flow along the south fork of Oak Creek, just north of Independence, destroyed 25 homes and wiped out the entire stock of one of California’s oldest fish hatcheries.
Five years later, mud and debris from unusually heavy rain and flash flooding was blamed for the sudden mass die-off of fish and other aquatic life along a portion of the Lower Owens River south of Lone Pine.
The current situation in the Sierra Oriental has a certain meteorological irony. Just six months ago, drought-stricken residents and business owners in Mammoth Lakes, sometimes called the furthest suburb of Los Angeles, would have been relieved to know that the March forecasts would call for rain and snow.
“It’s been snowing here every few days since November, and people are getting tired,” said Steve Johnson, 69, an independent contractor who has lived in Mammoth since 1972. “We can’t travel anywhere we need to, and it’s making that daily routines are a struggle, so we are falling behind in everything.”
For Johnson, that means he’s a month behind in completing construction on a custom home.
“As soon as I remove enough snow to allow my crew to get back to work on the house,” he sighed, “it gets buried in the snow again.”